Thanks to everyone for the effort and hard work the last couple of months. This year’s team selection has been the most difficult of all for the coaches; there were many talented athletes to choose from. The teams selected for the 2017 Las Vegas Invitational tournament are:
Stephanie Browne – Orlando
Stephanie Nevadunsky – Fort Miami
Jaqueline Edge – University of Central Florida
Brittany Broomfield – Florida International University
Leandria Ates – Florida International University
Cortney Kuehl – University of Central Florida
Jessica Warner – University of Central Florida
Ashaunte Stroman – Florida International University
Jennifer Fasano – University of Central Florida
Tatum Walker – Fort Miami
Agnes Fuerst – University of Central Florida
Amanda Divich – Unattached (formerly Lindenwood University)
David Washington – Jacksonville RFC
Jeffrey Herron – Tampa Krewe
Mateo Velazquez – Florida International University
Damien Clemente – Miami RFC
Cagney Kobrin – Unattached (formerly Miami 7’s)
Malacchi Esdale – University of Central Florida
Tristan Dignan – University of Central Florida
Tyler Pigott – Naples Hammerheads
Scott Watson – University of Central Florida
Eddie Abreu – Orlando
Roderigus Ceasar – Unattached (formerly Narooma Devils, Rugby League Australia)
Santiago Laphitzondo – Florida International University
To be the best, you have to beat the best. And while they weren’t able to notch a win, the Florida High Performance Sevens squad enjoyed an unforgettable and humbling experience at IMG Academy on Saturday, October 28.
Some of the best rugby sevens players from across the Sunshine State gathered in Bradenton to take on Canada’s national sevens side in a quartet of incredibly fast-paced touch matches.
Facing international stars like John Moonlight, Nathan Hirayama and Harry Jones, the 23 Floridians got a first-hand glimpse at the level of professionalism, focus and talent it takes to compete for a spot on an Olympic-quality side.
Though the Florida HPP team failed to dot down a try on the afternoon, players and coaches gained invaluable insight from the nearly two hours of rugby played on one of IMG Academy’s pristine practice pitches.
While the Canadian side obviously boasted better chemistry, fitness and overall skill, they were incredibly down to earth throughout the weekend. Despite being guests themselves at the IMG Academy campus, the Canadians showed great hospitality and sportsmanship in allowing the Florida players to utilize IMG’s state-of-the-art ice baths and training room. In addition, Moonlight and Jones delivered words of wisdom to the aspiring Florida ruggers and even threw in some free Canada team shirts as a token of appreciation for everyone who made the trip.
“We had a squad that got thrown together at the last minute,” said Florida Director of 7’s Steve Braunstein. “A lot of our players are just normal guys who volunteer their own time. However, we’re trying to get our program to compete with the best people in the world.”
The combination of Braunstein and Ronnie Suarez—who also coaches at Florida International University—has catapulted the state’s sevens program to new heights.
“In only two years we’ve been able to put together a program that’s been able to play at a high level,” explained Braunstein. “We have fared very well against Olympic Development Academies across the country out in Vegas, including beating Arizona, Utah and Ohio.”
One player who has been instrumental in transforming the program into a legitimate contender is Jeff Herron. The mechanical designer engineer first picked up a rugby ball in 2005 while attending the University of South Florida, and he’s continued his playing career with Tampa Bay Krewe since 2009.
Herron has been a staple within the Florida HPP 7’s program since 2014 and has been able to play against top-level competition such as Mexico’s national sevens team. Even for an experienced player like Herron, the showdown against Canada was truly eye opening.
“Canada’s pace of play was incredible,” Herron said. “I felt that we matched up with them fairly well in speed. They definitely had us on man-for-man size, but their pace of play was really the difference. Their breakdowns were secured and over with in the blink of an eye.”
While the scoreboard didn’t fall in Florida’s favor, the chance to play a world-class side at a world-class facility was a welcomed treat for players who often have to pay their own way while working typical day jobs.
“Any opportunity to play against a high level opponent is a chance to test ourselves and also to improve,” Herron said. “There is so much to learn from these matches and the more we are exposed to that level, the sooner we as a group will be able to compete and play at that level. Players with this kind of experience will learn, improve, and then have the chance to take that knowledge back to their club and share that with their local teammates.”
It is with great enthusiasm the Florida Rugby Union and 7’s High Performance Program wish Stephanie Browne the best of luck on her invitation to the Rugby Women’s 7s Academy Camp June 15-June 19 at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA.
The 2016 USA Women’s Olympic team will be chosen from this camp and we look forward to Stephanie performing like she did in Las Vegas Invitations against France & Japan. Those efforts earned her this opportunity and the FRU HPP program will continue to provide venues like this for our Florida rugby athletes to showcase their abilities.
On the men’s side, the battle for the 12 exclusive spots came down to the wire, but head coach Ronnie Suarez is confident that this year’s team has what it takes to make a significant splash in Vegas. With players from both the college and men’s ranks, it’s clear the overall talent level across the state has improved dramatically from just a year ago.
Representing FRU in Las Vegas will be:
Joe DiGregorio – Brevard
Damian Clemente – Miami RFC
Jeffrey Herron – Tampa Krewe
Jonathan Halter – Gainesville
Adrian Salazar – Miami RFC
Mateo Velazquez – Florida International University (FIU)
Alex Vinkavich – Miami Tridents
Jude Kermundu – Naples
Nick Daniel – Florida International University (FIU)
Hank May – Gainesville
Tyler Piggot – Naples
Matthew Coore – Indian River
In addition, the six non-traveling reserves for the men’s side include:
Isaac Leite – University of Florida (UF)
Adrian White – Fort Lauderdale
Paul Diaz – Orlando
Dewayne Parks Jr. – Brevard
Julius Fletcher – Treasure Coast
Barrington McNutt – Florida International University (FIU)
The FRU is also pleased to announce the women’s side that looks to shock a stacked pool of international sides in Vegas. Representing Florida for the women are:
Leandria Ates – FIU Womens Rugby
Ashley Bengston – Ft. Miami Womens Rugby
Stephanie Browne – Phoenix Rugby 7s
Cassidy Davis – Orlando Womens Rugby
Jacqueline Edge – UCF Womens Rugby
Agnes Fuerst – UCF Womens Rugby
Vivian Junger Silveira – Ft. Miami Womens Rugby
Shannon Steele – Orlando Womens Rugby
Corntey Kuehl – UCF Womens Rugby
Zoe Sanchez-O’Neill – Orlando Womens Rugby
Jesenia Torres – Orlando Womens Rugby
Tatum Walker – Ft. Miami Womens Rugby
Jessica Warner of UCF and Lindsey Koren of UF Womens Rugby were selected to play but are unavailable due to injury.
Congratulations to all the players selected to represent Florida rugby at the LVI. We look forward to watching you put your talent on display at the top rugby sevens competition in the United States.
When it comes to rugby in the United States, there isn’t a bigger event than the Las Vegas Invitational. North America’s largest rugby tournament takes place right alongside the USA Sevens invitational rugby tournament that features domestic stars like Carlin Isles and Perry Baker as well as international legends like New Zealand’s D.J. Forbes, England’s Tom Mitchell and South Africa’s Cecil Afrika.
While many established stars will be on display, Vegas is also a place where aspiring ruggers can catch the eye of national team scouts and coaches. It’s for that reason that Ronnie Suarez, Steve Braunstein, Evan Haigh and the rest of the coaches, volunteers and staff from the Florida Rugby Union have collaborated to put together the best men’s and women’s squads to represent The Sunshine State in March.
After a competitive showing at last year’s event where they took home wins over Arizona Olympic Development Academy and Utah ODA, the coaches went back to the drawing board to formulate a plan that addressed the team’s weaknesses, which mostly surrounded the art form of passing. So far, the results are positive.
“After our LVI review of last year, we looked as what we needed to do and we decided to really push the fundamentals individually to each club team through the players involved in the program,” said Suarez. “The proof was in the past summer 7’s, as not only was it the best it had been in a long time but also the teams primarily consisted of two or three players involved in the FRU 7’s RDA. Those players coming back had not only improved individually but had also brought in other teammates who had developed their skills as well.”
Unlike last year where getting consistent numbers at the squad’s training sessions in Sebastian were a struggle, the turnout has been terrific for both the men’s and women’s sides this year. At a recent training session earlier this month, 41 men and 30 women battled muddy pitches and competed hard for coveted spots on their respective teams.
“The men’s pool has grown, which is making selections difficult,” said Braunstein, the FRU 7’s director. “It’s a nice problem to have one side but trying to make sure we make the right picks is stressful. The women’s pool is surprisingly large for this first year and the same challenge is being presented.”
The overall player pool includes representatives from 15 club teams as well as two Rugby League teams. On the men’s side, seven players have already been selected, including Damian Clemente (Miami RFC), Jonathan Halter (Gainesville), Jeffrey ‘Alaska’ Herron (Tampa Krewe) and Mateo Velazquez (Florida Internation University). Suarez has also been impressed by Jude Kermundu (Naples), Matt Coore (Indian River) and Hank May (Gainesville), who have made great strides over the past year.
On the women’s side, Haigh, Sandi Felke and Mark Bongo have been tasked with putting together the FRU’s first LVI women’s squad—a task that’s much easier said than done. Luckily, the numbers have continually improved at the Sebastian training sessions and there is a ton of optimism surrounding the program.
Though the Sunshine State doesn’t receive as much national recognition as it may deserve, the number of Florida natives who came up through the FRU 7’s program may change that. The brightest star is obviously national team speedster Perry Baker, but he’s not the only name worth mentioning. Kris Thomas has taken off as a member of the women’s national 7’s team, Peter Malcolm (Taravella High School/Wheeling Jesuit University) is making waves on the USA Falcons squad and Ashaunte Stroman (FIU) is playing both 15’s and 7’s for the USA Collegiate All-American squad.
Dana Meschisi (Florida State University), Victoria Folayan (Poinciana High School), Jessica Wooden (University of Florida) and Kim Semiglia (Weston) are all in the national mix at camps and training squads.
For both the men’s and women’s FRU 7’s teams, Vegas represents the chance to not only further individual interests but the state’s as a whole. As Florida rugby gains more attention on a national scale, the opportunities for scholarships, pro contracts and recruiting will only increase. With only one more training session in February, the competition for a roster spot is as tight as ever as the race to Vegas inches closer.
A great coach can turn an ordinary team into something special. And in the case of Ronnie Suarez, that’s exactly what he’s doing across the state of Florida.
Whether he is on the sidelines as the head coach of the Florida International University men’s rugby club or cultivating talent as the head coach of the Florida Rugby Union High Performance Sevens team, Suarez’s dedication and passion for the game has led to impressive results.
The well-traveled former Marine grew up around the game, as his aunt played for the Old Blue women’s team in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Suarez’s playing career included stops with North County Gurkhas and OMBAC, with his first official action coming in 1995 in Fremantle, Australia as a member of the Palmyra RFC. After moving to Miami in 1998, Suarez began playing for Miami RFC until he decided to make the natural transition from player to coach.
A self-described technical thinker who hails from a family full of successful sports coaches, Suarez credits both his mother and his military experience as major influences on his approach to coaching the often-misunderstood game of rugby.
“The discipline and hard work ethic is definitely my mom’s doing,” he said. “She was a tough, single mother who raised her kids to be the same way. The Marine corps gave me my never say die, never less than 100 percent respect and honor attitude.”
Of course, coaching soccer or baseball is one thing, but coaching rugby is an entirely different animal. Luckily, Suarez has been able to pick the brains of some of the top coaches around the globe to help shape his philosophies.
“I went to New Zealand and spent 10 days with City RFC in Whangarei watching their coaches and how they taught the players more than they coached. It really changed my thought process on how to coach the game,” Suarez explained. “There are a lot of coaches that I look up to and have helped shape me as well like Pierre Villepreux and Mike Luke.”
Suarez also credits Boca RFC coach Frank Tito as a major influence and says he could not have done a lot without his mentor’s guidance.
As a man who wears many hats, Suarez is intimately familiar with the challenges of coaching for both FIU and the FRU High Performance Sevens team. Interestingly, the challenges differ quite a bit between the two programs.
“In my current setup as head coach of the FRU Sevens, my major challenge is getting coaches behind the program and encouraging their players to try it out,” Suarez said. “With FIU, changing the perception of rugby to administrators who have no idea about the sport is pretty hard. Our own president and athletic department didn’t know FIU Rugby existed.”
Despite the widespread challenges of culture, administration, attitudes toward the sport and financial support, Suarez continues to charge ahead and establish himself as one of the most successful and influential members of the Florida rugby community. He recently led FIU to an undefeated season that culminated in a thrilling victory at the SIRC Championship that may finally put FIU Rugby on the national radar.
“Ronnie is a competitive and laser-focused coach that has been able to assemble a great team by knowing his players’ strengths and weaknesses,” said FIU senior standout Jose Laphitzondo. “Under him, the team had the mission to make it to nationals. The team understood that under a common objective every tackle, sprint and burpee had a purpose so the team pushed each other towards that goal.”
However, it’s Suarez’s work with the FRU HP Sevens program that has a potentially more profound effect. With rugby sevens gaining popularity based on the success of the U.S. Eagles, there’s a great opportunity for the game to catch on and attract more attention from television networks and crossover athletes.
For Suarez, the FRU HP Sevens program is the perfect gateway for the state’s top rugby athletes to get a chance to represent their country on an international stage. One of Suarez’s goals is to get the Florida HP Sevens program recognized as an Olympic Development Academy, which would give every player in the state the opportunity to get a chance to be chosen for the USA Eagles Olympic Pathway.
“Growing our program now and getting it recognized is something we are in the process of doing, but participation numbers are what really make and break us, so getting those numbers up is key.”
Additionally, Suarez’s long list of goals includes gaining varsity status for both the men’s and women’s rugby teams at FIU as well as getting in the elite coaches group for sevens in the U.S.
As someone who never settles for less than perfection, Suarez certainly isn’t someone you want to bet against. No matter if he’s running an extra conditioning session with his FIU team or preparing to take on Mexico with the FRU HP Sevens squad, Suarez is a man whose intense preparation and selfless dedication will help grow the game of rugby not only in Florida but across the United States.
“If the clubs, officers and players of Florida ask themselves ‘How to help grow the game?’ and follow through with it, we will see Florida rugby rise to where it should have been a long time ago. But it starts with that question: How may we help grow the game?”